Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Where Are "Apostolic Succession" And "Authoritative Tradition" In Papias?

Dave Armstrong has written a reply to my recent post on Papias. He writes:

"Catholics believe there was one rule of faith that consistently developed. It is what we call the 'three-legged stool': Scripture-Church-Tradition (as passed down by apostolic succession)."

When Papias spoke with the daughters of Philip (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39), for example, were they giving him information by means of "apostolic succession"? Dave hasn't given us any reason to think that Papias attained his oral tradition by that means. To the contrary, as Richard Bauckham documents in his book I cited earlier, Papias refers to the sort of investigation of early sources that was common in the historiography of his day, and we don't assume the involvement of apostolic succession when other ancient sources appeal to that concept.

Why should we even think that what Papias was addressing was a rule of faith? When he attained information about a resurrection or some other miracle that occurred, for example, why should we conclude that such oral tradition became part of Papias' rule of faith once he attained it? Some of his oral traditions would be part of his rule of faith, but not all of them. Dave is appealing to what Papias said about oral tradition in general, but Catholicism doesn't teach that all oral tradition within Papias' historiographic framework is part of the rule of faith. When Papias uses the historiographic language of his day to refer to oral tradition, including traditions that wouldn't be part of a Christian rule of faith and premillennial traditions, for example, it's misleading for Dave to cite Papias' comments as a reference to his rule of faith and claim that he agreed with Catholicism.

Dave writes:

"Therefore, Papias could indeed have lived by sola Scriptura as the rule of faith. There is no compelling reason to think that he could not have done so, simply due to his living in a very early period of Christian history."

The question is whether he should have, and I'm not aware of any reason why an adherent of sola scriptura ought to think so. Papias was at least a contemporary of the apostles, and, as I'll discuss in more depth below, most likely was a disciple of one of the apostles as well.

Dave writes:

"But Jason dissents from his colleagues and wants to play the game of having a relativistic rule of faith: not in play from the beginning of Christianity, but only set in motion later. This allows him to play the further game of denying that Papias' views are consistent with Catholic dogma and our rule of faith, while not having any responsibility of showing that it is consistent with a Protestant view."

Dave keeps accusing me of "playing games", being "relativistic", etc. without justifying those charges. The fact that my view allows me to point to inconsistencies between Papias and Catholicism without having to argue that Papias adhered to sola scriptura doesn't prove that my view is wrong.

I've given examples of other transitional phases in history, during which the rule of faith changed for individuals or groups. Dave said that he agreed with "many, if not all of these points", but then accused me of "relativism" and such when I applied the same sort of reasoning to Papias. Why?

Dave writes:

"What was in common was that all accepted 'the word of God' (both written and oral) as normative for the Christian faith, but not in the sense of sola Scriptura."

To say that everybody from Adam to Mary to Papias to Dave Armstrong followed the same rule of faith, defined vaguely as "the word of God", is to appeal to something different than the "Scripture-Church-Tradition (as passed down by apostolic succession)" that Dave referenced earlier. Adam and Eve didn't have scripture or a magisterium. Even under Dave's view, a change eventually occurred in which the word of God was communicated by a means not previously used. The sort of direct communication God had with Adam isn't part of the average Catholic's rule of faith today. A Protestant could say that the rule of faith has always been "the word of God", and thus claim consistency in the same sort of vague manner in which Dave is claiming it.

Dave writes:

"He seems to be trying (by repeated, almost mantra-like emphasis) to undermine a Catholic notion of oral tradition without saying so in so many words."

I don't know how familiar Dave is with Richard Bauckham and his work. Bauckham isn't interacting with Catholicism in the passage of his book that I cited. As far as I recall, he never even mentions Catholicism anywhere in the book, at least not in any significant way. Bauckham is a New Testament scholar interacting primarily with other New Testament scholars and scholars of other relevant fields.

Dave writes:

"How in the world that is construed as somehow contrary to Catholic tradition is, I confess, beyond me."

Papias' position wouldn't have to be contrary to the Catholic position in order to be different than it. If Papias can take a transitional role under the Catholic view, in which he attains his rule of faith partly by means of the historical investigation he describes, then why can't he take a transitional role under a Protestant view?

Dave writes:

"We know that he collected eyewitness testimony. We don't know that he would say that was the only tradition that was legitimate."

I didn't claim that we know the latter. Remember, Dave is the one who claims that Papias was a Catholic, cited him in support of "oral tradition" (in a dispute with an Evangelical and without further qualification), etc.

Dave writes:

"His testimony was third-hand. He 'he received the doctrines of the faith from those who were their [the apostles'] friends.' What is that if not succession?"

Why should we define apostolic succession so vaguely as to include "the apostles' friends"? In the same passage of Eusebius Dave is citing, Papias is quoted referring to these people as "followers" of the apostles. Many people, including individuals outside of a church hierarchy, can be considered friends or followers of the apostles. And, as I said above, the historiographic concept Papias is appealing to doesn't limit itself to apostolic successors or an equivalent category in its normal usage. Why think, then, that the concept has such a meaning when Papias uses it?

Dave originally claimed that "we find an explicit espousal of apostolic succession" in Papias. He still hasn't documented that assertion.

Dave writes:

"Again, the trouble with this is that Eusebius specifically says (twice) that Papias only knew friends of the apostles: not they themselves. So one of [Bauckham's] key premises is unfactual."

Dave makes that point repeatedly in his article. But Richard Bauckham argues against Eusebius' position elsewhere in the book I've cited. I've argued against Eusebius' conclusion as well. See, for example, here.

Earlier, I cited an online collection of fragments by and about Papias. Eusebius' dubious argument that Papias wasn't a disciple of any of the apostles is contradicted by multiple other sources, including Irenaeus more than a century earlier (a man who had met Polycarp, another disciple of John). Some of the sources who commented on Papias when his writings were still extant said that he was even a (or the) secretary who wrote the fourth gospel at John's dictation. Eusebius wasn't even consistent with himself on the issue of whether Papias had been taught by John. See the citation from Eusebius' Chronicon on the web page linked above. The only source I'm aware of who denied Papias' status as a disciple of the apostles, Eusebius, wasn't even consistent on the issue. The evidence suggests that Papias was a disciple of the apostle John.

Dave writes:

"Bauckham appears to contradict himself...Which is it?: Eyewitnesses or those who knew eyewitnesses? Once one starts going down the chain to third-hand, fourth-hand or later generations of witnesses, one is squarely within oral tradition. It's something other than eyewitness testimony."

No, Bauckham explains, in the section of his book I cited, that though eyewitnesses were the primary source of interest, other early sources were involved as well. Even if you disagree with the historiographic standard in question, the fact remains that Papias was appealing to that standard. It involved witnesses who would quickly die out rather than going into the "fourth-hand or later generations" Dave refers to.

Even apart from that ancient historiographic standard, it makes sense to differentiate between a source who's one step removed and other sources who are five, twenty, or a thousand steps removed. We don't place all non-eyewitnesses in the same category without making any distinctions. Why are we today so focused on the writings of men like Tertullian and John Chrysostom rather than modern oral traditions about them?

Dave writes:

"In other words, the traditions that he [Ignatius] teaches are rejected, no matter how proximate they are to the apostles."

Like Dave's rejection of Papias' premillennial tradition, the soteriological tradition of Hermas (his belief in limited repentance), etc.?

Dave writes:

"St. Ignatius (c. 35 - c. 110) was born a generation earlier than Papias. He may possibly have known St. John, or known of him through St. Polycarp (c. 69 - c. 155). But does that impress Protestants? No; not if they are intent on rejecting any doctrine that has the slightest 'Catholic' flavor in it."

Ignatius' earliness is significant to me. I often cite him and often refer to the significance of his earliness. But I prefer the more accurate interpretation of Ignatius offered by an Ignatian scholar like Allen Brent to the interpretation of somebody like Dave Armstrong.

Dave writes:

"It's perfectly consistent with our notion, and we continue to think oral tradition is authoritative, whereas Protestants have ditched it: in direct contrast to what the fathers thought about such things."

Catholics "ditched" the approach of Papias long ago. They don't appeal to an oral tradition attained by means of historical investigation, without the mediation of the Catholic hierarchy acting in its infallible capacity, and they don't think that their oral tradition is soon going to die out, as Papias' "living and abiding voice" was about to.

Dave writes:

"My goal was to show that Papias is not a counter-example to Catholic tradition."

No, Dave went further than that. He said that we find in Papias "an explicit espousal of apostolic succession and authoritative tradition". He also refers to the fathers in general as Catholic, which presumably would include Papias.

Dave writes:

"I don't believe in that [premillannielism] (used to), but the Catholic Church has not proclaimed many eschatological beliefs as dogma. Our position is not to uncritically accept any given father's view on anything, but to look at the consensus."

If Dave doesn't accept Papias' premillennial oral traditions, and he's identifying Papias' oral traditions as part of the rule of faith followed by Papias, then it follows that Papias' rule of faith involved a doctrine that Dave rejects. Was premillennialism part of the rule of faith in Papias' generation, but not today? Did Papias follow a different rule of faith than others in his generation? Would that qualify as "relativism"?

If Dave wants to argue that he wasn't referring to Papias' rule of faith when he made comments about "authoritative tradition" and "oral tradition" in Papias, then what's the relevance of such fallible tradition that's outside of a rule of faith? As I said before, that sort of "authoritative tradition" and "oral tradition" isn't what people normally have in mind when Catholics and Evangelicals are having a discussion like the current one, so Dave's comments were at least misleading.

And Papias thought he got his premillennialism from the apostles. It was apostolic tradition to him. It's not to Dave.

How does one see a Catholic concept of apostolic succession in a phrase like "the apostles' friends" or a Catholic concept of oral tradition in a historiographic phrase like "living and abiding voice"? In much the same way one sees everything from papal infallibility to a bodily assumption of Mary in scripture and an acorn of Catholicism in the writings of the church fathers.


  1. "But Jason dissents from his colleagues..."

    i) If it came to that, Jason is certainly at liberty to dissent from his "colleagues."

    ii) Dave feels free to dissent from his "colleagues" on the morality of nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    iii) However, I can't think of anything Jason said in this thread from which I'd dissent.

  2. "His testimony was third-hand. He 'he received the doctrines of the faith from those who were their [the apostles'] friends.' What is that if not succession?"

    Dave is equivocating. In Catholicism, apostolic succession involves the notion that Peter, as the vicar of Christ, ordained successors, who, in turn, ordained successors, &c.–for the duration of the church age. It is bound up with presuppositions regarding Petrine primacy and valid holy orders.

    It's certainly not synonymous with oral tradition.